Robb Spencer admitted that he’s often wondered if he’d ever win that elusive state championship.
In 13 seasons as the girls basketball coach at Modesto Christian, he’d won nearly 80 percent of his games, six Sac-Joaquin Section banners and made two trips to the state championship game. But he never had finished the season with a victory.
He can move on to worrying about other things.
Spencer’s girls captured the first state title in its storied history on Friday, defeating Santa Barbara 64-55 for the CIF Division 3 crown at Sleep Train Arena.
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“Of course that comes into your thoughts,” said Spencer, whose 2002 and ’09 teams each fell a couple baskets short. “Look at all the other teams that have come through the valley and not won one.
“It’s tough to get here.”
Just ask Santa Barbara coach Andrew Butcher, who after 32 years of coaching won his first section and Southern California titles.
“This was our 10th playoff game,” said Butcher, whose team finishes 30-6. “Even in the NCAA, nobody plays 10 playoff games. We had a lot of games, and then a little bit of travel and this arena is tough to shoot in.”
That figured to be an advantage for the Crusaders (27-8), who won the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 3 title here just three weeks ago. But any advantage they might have had was negated by a case of the jitters early on.
Modesto Christian opened the game by missing 10 of its first 11 shots.
“I wouldn’t say I was nervous, I was anxious,” said senior Lexi Tubbs, the Crusaders’ leading scorer this season (16.6 points per game) who finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds. “I was super anxious. All week, people have been coming up to me at school, asking me how I was doing. I just wanted to get this game over, so I could stop thinking and making up scenarios in my mind.”
How about this scenario, Lexi? Of all the great players that have played for Modesto Christian, none have left with a state banner until now.
“I look up to those players that came through here and left empty handed,” said Tubbs, who will play next season at Northwest Nazarene in Idaho. “It’s just amazing. I can’t believe it.
“I’m especially excited for Robb. He’s the greatest coach I’ve ever had, or may ever have.”
As great a coach as Spencer may be (he has a career mark of 345-91 with 13 league titles in his 13 seasons), there was nothing he could do in the game’s opening moments, when the Crusaders were ice cold.
Still, despite the frosty start from the field, the Crusaders led 11-3 after the first quarter.
Modesto Christian eventually opened up an 18-12 lead midway through the second quarter, but the Dons countered with a 9-0 run that gave them a 21-18 lead.
Candice White ended the drought with a pair of free throws, which sparked a 6-0 run for MC, making it clear that Santa Barbara had expended precious energy during its surge.
The Crusaders used their depth and superior athleticism, not to mention the longer NBA court, to wear down the Dons.
“That floor was really big,” said Santa Barbara senior Desirea Coleman. “I was really tired.”
Santa Barbara sophomore Amber Melgoza, a Division I prospect who averaged 22 points in the regular season and 30 in the playoffs, had a game-high 30 points and 14 rebounds against MC, with 20 of her points coming from the free-throw line.
“It was different,” said Melgoza. “The crowd was loud and right in my ear. Every time I’d bounce the ball at the line they’d yell ‘Amber, Amber.’ It wasn’t getting in my head and I wasn’t thinking about it.”
But when Melgoza wasn’t relaxing at the stripe, MC made her life miserable, forcing her to work hard for every step she took on the hardwood.
“That was the plan,” said Spencer. “Especially since she was (seldom) taken out of the game. We knew with our high-pressure defense, we’d wear them down.”
Melgoza had 12 points in the fourth quarter – more than any MC player scored in the game – and helped the Dons get within single digits with 35 seconds to play. The Crusaders promptly turned the ball over when they couldn’t inbound the ball in time, giving the Dons possession with a chance to cut the lead to five.
But MC’s defense wasn’t about to let that happen. Santa Barbara wasted precious seconds putting up three failed attempts, and the Crusaders celebrated at midcourt when the horn sounded.
But given that the Crusaders were coming off a win over Enterprise (Redding) in the NorCal final where they erased a 17-point deficit in the final nine minutes of action, surely there had to be some nervous moments on the MC bench.
“Nah, I had timeouts to burn,” said Spencer.
Jasmine Hampton, playing her last game in an MC uniform, missed much of this season with ankle injury. She returned in time for the playoffs and delivered one of her biggest performances with 10 points and four rebounds.
“I definitely think I would’ve enjoyed this even if I were still in street clothes, because I’m a team player,” said Hampton. “But being in uniform makes it so much better.”
Junior Candice White, playing in just her third game since returning from an ACL injury, finished with six points and 12 rebounds, while sophomore Lailoni Gaines, who dealt with an injured finger this season, had her best performance of the postseason with 10 points and 12 boards, plus some key free throws down the stretch.
MC dominated the boards, outrebounding the Dons 64-37.
“We knew we had to leave it all on the court tonight for our seniors,” said Gaines. “We had to finish this off for them, and for our coach.
“We wanted to make history for MC.”
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